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What is the Difference Between Engineered Wood, Manufactured Wood, MDF, Rubber Wood and Real solid Wood?

By Jeff Frank


What is the difference between Engineered wood, Manufactured wood, MDF, Rubber wood and real solid wood?  


Jan. 16, 2021


The three primary wood categories are:

  • Solid wood
  • Plywood
  • Engineered Wood

Solid wood has two main categories:

  • Hardwood
    • There is a wide range of hardness among different species.
      • Some woods, such as hickory are rarely used for furniture because they are too hard. That makes them difficult to work with.
      • Poplar is among the softest of the hardwoods. It is cheap and easy to work, but doesn’t take finishes well or last as long as the harder species.
      • Maple, oak and cherry are among the most popular hardwoods for furniture.
      • Walnut and mahogany used to be very popular, but are now scarce and expensive.
      • Many other hardwood species that are suitable for furniture.
    • Hardwood species vary widely in price, subject to availability and other factors. Prices change daily.
    • Rubberwood is one type of hardwood.
      • It has a medium density, and is generally used only for smaller pieces such as occasional tables. It is rarely found on large case pieces like dressers or dining room tables.
      • Rubberwood has a greenish grain which does not look good with clear or transparent finishes. It is usually covered with a heavy opaque painted finish, frequently black.
    • Check out the Janka Hardness Scale to see the relative hardness of the different species.
  • Softwood (Pines, Fir Trees)
    • These are not suitable for fine furniture. Softwoods are easily dented and subject to warping.
    • Softwoods are generally cheaper than hardwoods.

Plywood can be made from hard or softwoods. It is made by gluing up multiple thin strips (plies) of woods with alternating grains. (If the first ply has a grain that runs from top to bottom, the next one will have a grain running from side to side. This greatly increases the strength of the finished plywood.)

  • Veneers are a single ply that is especially good looking. It can be used as the top face layer of a multi-layer plywood or can be glued over solid wood or MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard.).
    • The very best logs are set aside to be used for veneers.
    • Veneers are far more expensive than the other plys on a piece of plywood.
  • Softwood plywood is used mostly for building. Sometimes it is used for cheaper furniture
  • Hardwood plywood is far more common than solid wood in furniture today.
    • Hardwood plywoods can be just as strong as solid wood and are far less likely to warp over time. (Both solid woods and plywood should be kiln-dried before use with furniture to prevent warping (and insect infestation.)
    • Hardwood plywood used in furniture is available in a variety of different thicknesses (and number of plies used.)
      • The greater the number of plies and the thicker the plywood, the sturdier it will be.
      • Cheaper furniture may use plywood as thin as 1/2″ made with 3 plys.
      • Most mid-range furniture uses 7/8″ plywood made from 5 or 7 plys.
      • Better quality furniture may use 1″ or 5/4″ plywood with more than 7 plies.
    • Plywood furniture will generally include some solid wood supports, including corner blocks, which cannot be made from plywood.
    • Descriptions that claim the furniture is made from “hardwoods”, without specifying solid hardwood, often refer to hardwood plywood (or the small amount of solid wood used for corner supports.)
  • Solid wood used to be mandatory for high end sofa frames. Many high end sofa brands now cut costs by using plywood.
    • Plywood can be very efficiently cut on computerized routers. There is far less waste.
    • A high end plywood sofa frame will last 20+ years at a manufacturer’s cost of less than $100.
    • A high end 5/4″ solid maple sofa frame will last 50+ years, but can cost more than $300.

Solid wood is not necessarily a better material for use in case goods (large wood furniture.) This includes high end pieces.

  • Solid wood limits styling options. It can not be shaped as easily as plywood.
    • High end solid wood furniture is extremely expensive, partially because a tremendous amount of highly skilled labor is required to shape and finish the wood properly.
    • Popularly priced solid wood generally has far more simple styling (such as Amish or country farmhouse styles.)
    • Solid wood furniture, especially the lower priced brands are far more likely to warp, compared with similarly priced plywood.
    • Solid wood is far easier to refinish if the furniture becomes scratched.

Engineered woods (also known as manufactured woods) include  chip core, particleboard, MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) and many other variations.

  • Engineered woods are generally cheaper than plywood and solid wood.
    • Depending on density and thickness, engineered woods are typically more cost effective than solid wood or plywood.
    • Engineered woods can be made from the waste leftover after solid woods or plywoods have been used.
  • Engineered woods do not hold screws, staples or other fasteners as well as good hardwood plywood or solid woods.
    • MDF is generally denser and stronger than cheaper engineered woods such as chip core or particle board, but it is not as strong as an equal thickness of  plywood or solid wood.

The description above is very general. There are thousands of different variations and exceptions.

  • Woodworking construction techniques and the skill of the craftsperson are even more important than the materials used.

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